Dr Saliha Afridi Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The phenomenon of computer-generated virtual influencers could lead to further alienation of people and impact people’s ability to successfully build relationships, a Dubai-based psychologist has said.

As people become more involved and engaged with the digital and virtual world and lose touch with the real world, research shows that people have become less socially intelligent over the years, Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of Lighthouse Arabia, said.

“Most people already spend the majority of their waking hours on some form of technology, which means it is time that is not being spent with other people in person. As human beings, we have need to feel attachment, empathy, and connection with other humans in order to feel genuinely happy,” she said.

People also learn about social norms and how to socialise through the relational experiences they have with other people, she added.

Experts still don’t know the full impact of technology on our physical and mental health, but statistics show that humans are more depressed, anxious and lonelier than they have ever been and part of that has to do with the fact that they are spending so many of their waking hours on technology or social media, she said.

Much of what we know about relationships, how they are formed, invested in and nurtured is learnt through engaging with peers during childhood and adolescence.

- Dr Saliha Afridi | Clinical Psychologist

“People are [not only] losing connection with other people in their lives; they also feel very disconnected from themselves,” she said. “The field of AI [Artificial Intelligence] and technology is growing at such a fast pace that we cannot learn from our mistakes and correct the future fast enough.”

Do today’s young minds understand what it takes to build real relationships?

With the younger generation, social media has already disrupted the way they understand relationships and explore their identities, according to Dr Afridi. A whole generation’s identities, values and well-being is in the hands of the influencers, whether computer-generated or real.

“Interactions are already limited and disrupted. Children growing up in the age of social media are unable to understand the effort it takes to make and maintain real relationships,” she said.

“This is because much of what we know about relationships, how they are formed, how they are invested in, and how they are maintained is learnt through engaging socially with peers during childhood and adolescence.”

She added that due to this disruption, children also lack social skills or etiquette to engage in real relationships.

“With a click of a button, they make friends and delete just as easily. They have a hard time reading social cues, or managing their anxiety when they are in difficult social encounters. They prefer to play online, date and break-up using social media.

“Now with the AI movement, it will be no time before they start to interface with robots and CGIs [computer-generated images].”

The younger generation believe that being connected to hundreds of people, real or computer generated, is actually the way to connecting with them, she explained.

Who is defining the identity of the young?

“One of the main tasks of adolescents is to explore their identity and develop a sense of self,” said Dr Afridi.

“Self-identity gives children a sense of consistency and stability over time. Whereas in the previous generations, adolescents would go out, date, make mistakes, and explore their identities, now adolescents are less likely to do any of the aforementioned.”

Who they are, what they should wear, what they should buy and who they should emulate is all linked to the likes they get, she added.

“This is a generation that is far more invested in showing themselves than knowing themselves.”

But there is some good news too
On the flip side, it can also be argued that while virtual influencers are not human, they might actually be presenting a more ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ image of themselves than real human beings who are often insecure, and depict a airbrushed version of themselves and their life, said Dr Afridi.

“CGIs don’t feel insecure, and cannot feel judged or hurt by others. So, the people who have constructed the characters maybe able to express themselves in a more genuine way behind the anonymity of a fictional character. So while they wouldn’t solve the ‘human-to-human’ needs, they could keep us more connected to the more flawed parts of us.”